Monday 27 January 2020

Cullen delight as Connors adds to his growing reputation

Munster 6  Leinster 13

Leinster flanker Will Connors shows his determination as he powers through the Munster tackles during Saturday night’s PRO14 victory in Thomond Park. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster flanker Will Connors shows his determination as he powers through the Munster tackles during Saturday night’s PRO14 victory in Thomond Park. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

There was a 22-second passage of play in the dying stages of Leinster's absorbing Thomond Park win over Munster, which best sums up the position that both teams currently find themselves in.

As Munster threw everything at their old foes, as they had done throughout Saturday night's contest, Leinster came up with the necessary answers.

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The home side's lack of a clinical edge, particularly against the better defences, is a major cause for concern because they were so bereft of an attacking spark for much of the game, that Leinster were able to soak up everything that came at them.

As the clock ticked beyond the 74th minute, Munster upped the ante inside the 22, only for the move to come to an inevitable stuttering halt due to their own inaccuracies.

Munster's Chris Cloete is tackled by Conor O'Brien and Jimmy O'Brien of Leinster during the match at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster's Chris Cloete is tackled by Conor O'Brien and Jimmy O'Brien of Leinster during the match at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

That is not to detract from the visitors' awesome defensive effort, which ensured they have now won all 13 of their games this season.

The tone was set by Will Connors, who again further enhanced his rapidly-growing reputation with another hugely impressive shift.

The 23-year-old flanker just doesn't ever seem to miss a tackle, yet it is the manner of his technique coupled with his relentless work rate, which is really catching the eye.

Connors' 75th minute thumping double-hit along with Sean Cronin on Darren O'Shea typified the doggedness of Leinster's performance and while it was an easy highlight to pick out at such a vital stage, what happened in the couple of phases that followed was just as impressive.

After the rib-tickler on O'Shea, Connors quickly got back into position and eight seconds later was biting at Mike Haley's ankles as he brought the Munster full-back to the deck.

Technique

Munster's Nick McCarthy of Munster in action against Devin Toner of Leinster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Munster's Nick McCarthy of Munster in action against Devin Toner of Leinster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Not content with stopping there, Connors came back for more and a mere 14 seconds later, repeated the same chop tackle technique - this time on Diarmuid Barron, which led to a key relieving turnover penalty.

These are the little things that can often go unnoticed, but not to the likes of Leo Cullen or Andy Farrell, who included Connors in his first Ireland training squad.

Farrell was in Thomond Park and will have been mightily impressed with what the Kildare native produced, as he racked up 23 tackles without missing one.

We have become used to seeing Leinster produce back-rows, yet there is something different about Connors and his ability to get low and still manage to be dominant in contact.

"He is non-stop," Cullen enthused.

"With Hugh Hogan (contact skills coach), the work they put in, they are reaping the rewards really.

28 December 2019; Ross Byrne of Leinster beats the tackle by Billy Holland of Munster during the Guinness PRO14 Round 9 match between Munster and Leinster at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
28 December 2019; Ross Byrne of Leinster beats the tackle by Billy Holland of Munster during the Guinness PRO14 Round 9 match between Munster and Leinster at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"It's not rocket science but they really do scrutinise everything that they are doing - line speed, how they get off the line, body profile, shape going into the tackle, their work on the contact in terms of poaching on the ground as well.

"Whatever about chop tackling, his ability to be then able to hit through guys as well, means he is very dominant in some of his contact work.

"There was lots of traffic coming down his channel and his line speed coming off the line forces opposition tens that little bit deeper as well.

"It's another good step for Will. I think he has played in some tricky games - Connacht away, Glasgow away, here away and he has gone well in those games.

"So, he is not a million miles off taking that next step. Obviously getting recognition going into (Ireland) camp - it's pleasing to see that as well."

The 23-year-old's breakthrough might well have occurred sooner had he not been hampered by a cruciate knee injury last year, but he is certainly making up for lost time this season.

That Leinster managed to back up their superb win in Glasgow recently, with a similarly young team, spoke volumes for the trust that Cullen has in his players as well as their ability to win in tough away venues.

For all that Connors and his back-row partner Caelan Doris will grab the headlines, it is important to also point out the value of experience.

In the ever-consistent partnership of Devin Toner and Scott Fardy, Leinster had that in spades, and the second-row pair were outstanding in helping their side over the line.

"Even though they are not perfect performances, they are good, spirited defensive performances," Cullen observed.

"For the most part we kept Munster from getting very close to our try line. But then there is the fight to stay in the game when they get very close. That constant wave after wave is bread and butter for them; so to keep them out is very, very pleasing."

Privately at least, Cullen will feel that Munster made it too easy by being too predictable too often - a recurring trait this season.

Nick McCarthy had a game to forget against his former side as the hosts' scrum-half struggled to cope with the windy conditions.

The same could be said for the rest of his team-mates though as time and time again, they sloppily coughed up possession in the Leinster 22.

"Coming away to hostile environments and getting positive results (is great)," Cullen reflected. "The Glasgow game two years ago, we really struggled over there in November. To go back two years later and to get a win was great. This time last year we struggled here, when we had a much more experienced group of players. So to get a win is great."

Munster - M Haley; D Goggin (C Nash 77), S Arnold, R Scannell, S Daly; JJ Hanrahan (J Carbery 56), N McCarthy (N Cronin 66); D Kilcoyne (J Loughman 51), K O'Byrne (D Barron 74), S Archer (K Knox 54); F Wycherley, B Holland (capt); T O'Donnell (D O'Shea 74), C Cloete (J O'Sullivan 54), J O'Donoghue.

Leinster - H Keenan (T O'Brien 79); A Byrne, J O'Brien, C O'Brien (C Frawley 59), J Lowe; R Byrne, R Osborne (H O'Sullivan, 65); E Byrne (P Dooley 51), J Tracy (S Cronin 51), A Porter (J Aungier 74); D Toner, S Fardy; J Murphy (R Molony 65), W Connors (S Penny 76), C Doris.

Ref - F Murphy (Connacht)

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